Sir Waine’s household rejoiced when he rode through his gate. They’d feared him dead. But they gaped at the cankered cat that sat behind him on his horse.
“Show Dame Cat to the best bedchamber,” sayt Sir Waine. “Offer her the freshest eggs and softest cheeses. And whatever else she desires.”
His steward cried, “Must we have her in the house? She can lodge in the woodshed.”
“Do as you’re bid. And send for the priest. Tomorrow she’ll be my bride.”
None durst speak then, for fear of laughing.
They were wedded at first light. There was but the priest, and a glum old man as witness. He’d ne’er been known to smile, before that day.
“Where are our guests, with gifts and good wishes?” arrkst Dame Cat.
“There was not time enough to send out letters,” sayt Sir Waine. That was the truth, but only half, as she well knew. Her black tears flowed afresh.
To cheer her, Sir Waine sayt they’d break their fast at high table in the Hall. All the household would make merry and drink their health.
There was not time for roasts, but the servants brought forth cold cuts. Dame Cat wept to see them, because she was sworn to eat no flesh. But there was fish, fresh caught and broiled, which she could have.
She ate most delicate. Her only fault was to take a drink from the bowl for cleansing her paws. Like all us cats she licked them, then wiped her face. The boy who served her smirked to see it.
Sir Waine had no appetite. He feared she’d call for musick and dancing, and he did not wish to foot it with a cat.
Dame Cat, being full-fed, desired no more than a walk in the garden, and then a rest in the shade.
All day Sir Waine hid hisself, he felt so fool. At night Dame Cat came clawing at his chamber door.
He called, “You have the best bedchamber. Are you not content there?”
“I’m your wedded wife. You can’t deny me your bed.”
He had no choice but to admit her. She arrkst, “What ails you now?”
True knights never lie, save when it’s a matter of a lady’s reputation. Sir Waine sayt, “I’m wedded to an ugly cat. Whoever had such a wife? I wish I were dead.”
“But for me, you would be. I crave your pardon.” She curled herself at his side, and slept.
In the morn, there was a live hare by his pillow.
“What’s this?” he cried, feigning joy.
“My gift to you,” sayt Dame Cat. “I crept out before dawn. What have you for me?”
He had nowt.
“A kiss will suffice,” sayt she. “And as I’m so ugly, you may quit the bed and draw the curtains. I’ll thrust my paw between them.”
Sir Waine was truly shamed. He sayt, “Offer me your paw. I’ll kiss it now.”
Dame Cat insisted he stand well off. Then from within the bed came a lady’s slender arm.
“What witchery is this?” cried Sir Waine, as he raised her fair fingers to his lips.
“’Tis we who are bewitched,” sayt a sweet voice. And when he loosed her hand he glimpsed, between the bed curtains, a very goddess. She drew the curtains close and sayt, “Come not near, Sir Waine, until you hear what I must say.
“Your poor cat was accursed until a true knight would marry her. Now the curse is half gone. She may be beauteous by day and loathly by night, or loathly by day and beauteous by night. Which will you choose?”
Sir Waine thought long. “For,” as he sayt, “were you beauteous by day, none would mock me. We’d hunt together, and dine at the high table in sight of all. Were you beauteous at night, we’d sup by candlelight and I’d be honoured by your presence in my bed.”
Then he sayt, “The choice cannot be mine. You must determine which you’ll be.”
“I thank you, Sir Waine. Now your wife may have her way, she’ll be beauteous by night and day.”
And a great hunting leopard sprang from his bed and oped her mouth to show fine fangs. “Behold,” sayt she, “your cat.”
Her tears were dry, though they’d stained her face from eye to whisker.
“Where’s my lady wife?” cried Sir Waine. “You tricked me!”
“Not I. Who sayt Dame Cat would turn woman? None, as I recall.
“We’ll hunt together. I’ll ride behind you on your horse, and when the game’s afoot none gives chase as swift as I. Ladies will long to sup with us by candlelight, and even share our bed. In the matter of women, I’m metal most attractive [magnetic]. And you may do what you will.”
Sir Waine could not be tempted. “You’re still my wedded wife,” he sighed. “I’ll not break my marriage vows. And though it breaks my heart to think of the fair lady who offered me her hand, ’twas but a waking dream.”
“Not so, Sir Waine,” came a voice. Dame Cat moved aside so he might ope the bed curtains. There was the lady, free to tell him all.
She sayt, “The Red Knight came again and again to woo me. I refused him with civilitie, and endured his jibes and jeers. One day I lost patience, and told him he had a better chance of catching Dame Cat.
“He cursed us then. He called me Witch, and changed me to a hare. Dame Cat became a shrunken thing of wounds and weepings. He sayt she could be free from her pain whene’er she chose. All she need do was kill and eat me.
“Dame Cat swore she’d eat no flesh until we were our selves again. The Red Knight sayt that would only be when a true knight wed her all unknowing, and proved a faithful husband.”
Then Dame Cat released Sir Waine from his wedding vows.
Her mistress wed him, and they found what they called a husband for Dame Cat.
And though we cats care nowt for marrying, all were happy.
There are numerous versions of the story of Sir Gawain and the “loathly lady” he marries after she saves his (or King Arthur’s) life by revealing what it is that women really want. After Sir Gawain demonstrates how well he understands this, the loathly lady becomes beautiful.
Gib makes a cat the hero of his tale. I’m not aware of any cheetah, or “hunting leopards”, in Elizabethan England; Gib must have been in the library at Place House and seen a drawing or two. Cheetah seem to have been a status symbol in Renaissance Italy, but they have a long history of being kept for hunting. There’s an interesting article on this Zookeeper’s blog.